Thursday, June 9, 2011

SIFF — The Names of Love

The Names of Love
Le Nom des gens
France, 2010
Official website

Until Midnight in Paris, we've gone so many years between good Woody Allen movies ('cuz God knows he wasn't making them) that it took other filmmakers to provide our "Woody Allen movies" for us. For instance, Julie Delpy's 2 Days in Paris from 2007 struck me favorably as a comedy that chimed several WoodyAllenesque bells. Now The Names of Love, a funny, sexy, very French comic romance struck me that way again and then some.

  • A witty, character-based script? ✓  
  • A serious-minded, uptight guy meets a kooky "free spirit" woman; they're hopelessly mismatched, yet they somehow discover their inherent rightness together? ✓  
  • They occasionally break the fourth wall to wryly address us directly? ✓  
  • Characters interact with younger versions of themselves or imagined figures from the past? ✓
  • The cringe-comedy dinner scene that brings together their polar-opposite parents? Big ✓
The Names of Love manages to tick those boxes without feeling derivative or anything less than director Michel Leclerc's own, and it's one of my favorite movies on this year's SIFF roster.

While succeeding as a clever, briskly paced comedy, The Names of Love also dips its spoon into some heavy themes: generation-scarring family history, sustaining memories vs. sedating forgetfulness, Arab-Jewish relations, immigration, and the experiences of French Jewish families under the Nazi occupation of WWII. The origins of sexy young Baya's insouciant promiscuity, while handled well, will be a sensitive point for some viewers.

As Annie and Alvy Baya and Arthur, Sara Forestier and Jacques Gamblin are new names on my future Go See list. Forestier's flighty, impudent Baya is an uncontainable half-Algerian hard-lefty who engages her political activism by fucking right-wingers, thereby converting them to the side of good via that brief, vulnerable moment during love-making when a man is susceptible to redemption.

Granted, there's no getting around the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Fille Manic rêve Pixie?), but Forestier commits to the part with such fearlessness (e.g., her obliviously nude scene in the Paris Métro) that it's worth seeing the type played out again so well. Also quite fine is Gamblin as the heretofore unruffled older man who endures much for the sake of (eventually) love, or at least its "quirky" approximation. The bumpy flight of their relationship ultimately lands on a tarmac that struck me as too sweetly safe and conventional, at odds with what came before. But it's still "nice" and probably secured the feel-good vibe it aimed for.

To get all the humor, non-French viewers might benefit from an annotated guide to the film's references, ranging from topics domestic (Gamblin's "Arthur Martin" shares his name with a line of French kitchen appliances of excellent repute), pop-cultural (French talk-show intellectual/philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy is jarringly translated in the English subtitles as, yes, "Woody Allen"*), and political (immigration issues; former politico Lionel Jospin makes a funny appearance as himself; and it's a safe bet that the punchline name-checked Sarkozy won't be adding this title to his Netflix list).

Even so, The Names of Love made me happy and I recommend it with enthusiasm.

* Update: This has been corrected in the version of the film now available via Amazon streaming.